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The Basic Principles of Shielding


Today’s electrical and electronic devices are subject to mandatory EMC

requirements throughout the world. Many devices operate at high frequencies and are very
small. They are placed in nonconductive plastic cases providing no shielding. Essentially, all
these devices cannot meet these mandatory requirements or they may cause interference
to other devices or receive interference causing susceptibility problems without a proper
program of EMI control. This program consists of identifying the “suspect” components and
circuits that may cause or be susceptible to EMI. This is completed early on in the program
to allow for an efficient design in keeping the cost of dealing with EMI as low as possible. A
complete EMC program consists of proper filtering, grounding and shielding. This article will
discuss the latter, but the other factors cannot and will not be ignored or given insufficient

The article will look into what EMI is and how to design to control it using shielding in
conjunction with proper design. Various shielding materials and their uses will be discussed.

What is EMI?
EMI (Electromagnetic Interference) is a process by which disruptive electromagnetic energy
is transmitted from one electronic device to another via radiated or conducted paths, or
both. In electronic components, devices and systems, EMI can adversely affect their
performance. The goal of all electronic designers is to achieve EMC (Electromagnetic
Compatibility) in their designs. Not only to assure proper operation, but to meet the various
mandatory EMC requirements imposed by legislation around the world.

EMI can simply be a nuisance such as static on a radio, or it can manifest itself as dangerous
problems such as interference with aircraft control systems, automotive safety systems, or
medical devices.

Remember, it is always more efficient and less expensive to deal with EMI at its source. The
farther away you get from the source or the farther down the design chain you are, the
more difficult and expensive it is to mitigate the problems.

The Problems
The trend in today’s electronic devices is faster, smaller, and digital rather than analog.
Most equipment of today contains digital circuits. Today’s digital designer must create a
circuit board that has the lowest possible EMI, combined with the highest possible operating
and processing speeds; generally keeping it as small as possible. Design of the printed circuit
board (PCB) is the most critical EMC influencing factor for any system, since virtually all
active devices are located on the board. It is the changing current (accelerating electron
movement) produced by the active devices that result in EMI.

The faster the digital speed, the greater the required circuit bandwidth, and the more
difficult it is to control both radiated emissions and susceptibility. In this regard, it is useful
to first consider the relationship between operating frequencies and radiated emissions.
The fundamental frequency for each active device and its associated circuitry must be
considered. But the harmonics of these devices can be 10 to 100 times greater in frequency
than their fundamentals. The odd harmonics, 3, 5, 7, 9, etc. times the fundamental, are
especially troublesome. As a result, increases in EMI with the evolution from analog to high
speed digital circuits have been dramatic. RF energy levels at the higher frequency
harmonics of analog devices are negligible. The harmonics of an ideal Gaussian wave shape,
albeit more a mathematical concept than a practical reality, fall off very quickly at the higher

A cosine-squared wave shape, approximately equivalent to that produced by a linear power

supply or other analog continuous wave (CW) source having some harmonic distortion,
exhibits high frequency harmonic amplitude falloff of 60 dB per decade of frequency.
Moving from analog circuits to low speed digital circuits has no significant effect at the
fundamentals level, but RF amplitudes increase at the higher harmonic frequencies because
falloff occurs at 40 dB per decade rather than 60 dB. In moving from low speed to high
speed digital operation, high frequency radio frequency (RF) levels increase even more as
harmonics fall off at just 20 dB rather than 40 dB per decade. Given today’s extremely fast
rise times, one can see that the high frequency harmonics are much greater than in the

Figure 1: This chart compares the EMI characteristics of analog, low speed digital, and high
speed digital logic.

Some Simplified Math

Radiation emitted by electronic devices results from both differential and common mode
currents. In semiconductor devices, differential mode currents flowing synchronously
through both signal and power distribution loops produce time variant electromagnetic
fields which may be propagated along a conducting medium or by radiation through space.
On simple one- or two-layer PCBs, loops are formed by the digital signals being transferred
from one device to another that return by means of the power distribution traces. Loops are
also created by PCB traces that supply power to these devices. Common mode radiation
results from voltage drops in the system that create common mode potential with respect
to ground. In addition, parasitic capacitive coupling, a hard-to-control phenomenon that
occurs between all conductive materials, makes external cables act like antennas.

The radiated EMI levels created by the active circuit loops on the board are proportional to
the square of the highest created frequencies. These frequencies are determined by the
data pulse rise time, and contain significant RF energy at typically 10 to 15 times the
operating speed. The rise time also determines the circuit bandwidth. For small circuits
whose dimensions are less than the dimensions at resonance, the plane wave emission
levels generated by these loops may be calculated by the following equation:

E = 1.3 AIF2/(DS)

E = microvolts/meter
A = radiating loop area in cm2
I = current in amps
F = frequency in MHz
D = measurement distance in meters
S = shielding effectiveness ratio

Figure 2: This chart correlates maximum loop area in square centimeters and the FCC Part
15B(B) limit for radiated RF at 1 mA (a), 10 mA (b), and 100 mA (c) of current. The
measurement distance is 3 meters.
Radiated susceptibility, on the other hand, increases linearly with the offending frequency.
For small circuits whose dimensions are less than the dimensions at resonance, the
maximum voltage induced into the circuit by a narrowband incident plane wave within its
passband is given by:

Vi = 2πεABpb/λS

Vi = volts induced into the loop
ε = field strength of incident wave in V/m
A = circuit capture area in square meters
Bpb = passband bandwidth response
λ = wavelength in meters of incident wave
S = shielding effectiveness ratio

Outside of the circuit passband, narrowband signal effects will be determined by the circuit
attenuation response. Broadband signal effects will be determined by both the attenuation
response and the circuit bandwidth. Of course, circuit attenuation can be increased with the
installation of shielding.

By examining the two formulae, we can draw some conclusions. For emissions, the field
strength is controlled by the specification that must be met or by the highest allowable
emissions for the environment in which the device must operate. The distance is set either
by the specification, such as three meters for the FCC part 15 requirements, or by the
distance from the source to the receptor of the radiated energy. Generally, these factor on
beyond the control of the device designer. Of course, 1.3 is a constant and cannot be
changed. We now come to factors that the designer can control. We see that frequency is
squared; therefore, emissions increase exponentially as frequency increases. This explains
why high frequency devices and circuits are the most troublesome. Emissions also increase
lineally with current. Therefore, one must place high frequency and high current circuits at
the top of the EMI suspect list. However, emissions also increase with loop area. By far,
large uncontrolled and even unknown loop areas have proven to be the biggest reason for
emission failures.

We see that the designer must control the loop area once the frequency and current have
been established. Especially for high frequency and high current circuits, the loop area must
be kept to a minimum. This must be done at the beginning of the design. It is far too difficult
and expensive to do this once the PCBs are designed, and even manufactured.

Once the frequency, current, and loop area have been set, and the circuit does not meet its
emissions requirements, we now see that there is only one factor left in the equation that
can bring the circuit into compliance: shielding!

For susceptibility, we see that the same good design practices as for emissions apply. In this
case, the voltage induced into the circuit is a function of field strength which is controlled
either by the specification or the circuit’s environment. The bandpass bandwidth response is
controlled by the choice of components and other circuit design components such as the
choice of the active components, and inactive components such as ferrite chip beads or
filters. Again, we see that loop area is a factor. The larger the loop area, the more efficient
the pickup of the circuit and generally, the more susceptible it will be. Finally, we see again
that once the circuit design is finalized, if it is still susceptible, the only factor left in the
formula is shielding!

Shielding is a conductive barrier enveloping an electrical circuit to provide isolation. The
“ideal” shield would be a continuous conductive box of sufficient thickness, with no
openings. Shielding deals almost exclusively with radiated energies. Shielding Effectiveness
(SE) is the ratio of the RF energy on one side of the shield to the RF energy on the other side
of the shield expressed in decibels (dB).

Figure 3: Graphical representation of shielding

For sources outside of the shield, the absorption and reflection of the shielding material, in
dB, are added to obtain the overall SE of the shield. For sources within the shield, roughly
only the absorption of the shield can be considered.

The absorption of the shielding material at frequencies of concern is controlled by:

 Conductivity
 Permeability
 Thickness

The reflectivity of the material at the frequencies of concern is controlled by:

 Conductivity
 Permeability

However, this is only true for our “ideal” shield. Two other major factors are:
 “Apertures” – holes or slots in the enclosure.
 The mechanical characteristics and effectiveness of the gaskets used on the enclosure.

“Mechanical characters” is pointed out because the biggest reason that RF gaskets do not
perform as specified is because of improper installation, such as “putting a gasket where a
gasket was never meant to go.” This is because many times, an RF gasket is used as a “fix”
after the design has been set. As we saw in the formulas, shielding is necessary after all
other factors in the circuit have been established. Sadly, it is also viewed that way. Rather
than design in shielding and gasketing, it is used as a last desperate effort to get the device
into compliance; adding the reason for so many failures in shielding and gasketing efforts.

Shielding, which is noninvasive and does not affect high-speed operation, works for both
emissions and susceptibility. It can be a stand-alone solution, but is more cost-effective
when combined with other suppression techniques such as filtering, grounding, and proper
design to minimize the loop area. It is also important to note that shielding usually can be
installed after the design is complete. However, it is much more cost-effective and generally
more efficient to design shielding into the device from the beginning as part of the design
process. It is important to keep in mind that the other suppression techniques generally
cannot be added easily once the device has gone beyond the prototype stage.

The use of shielding can take many forms ranging from RF gaskets to board-level shields
(BLS). An RF gasket provides a good EMI/EMP seal across the gasket-flange interface. The
ideal gasketting surface is conductive, rigid, galvanically-compatible and recessed to
completely house the gasket.

A device housed in a metal case is generally a good candidate for RF gasketing materials.
When electrical and electronic circuits are in nonconductive enclosures, or when it is
difficult or impossible to use RF gasketing, BLS provides the best option for EMI suppression.
A properly designed and installed BLS can actually eliminate the entire loop area because
the offending or affected circuit will be contained within the shield.

Apertures, or holes, have SE. The SE of an aperture and ultimately the entire electronic
enclosure is determined by the size, shape and number of the apertures. The formula is:

λ = Wavelength
k = 20 for a slit or 40 for a round hole
L = Longest dimension of the aperture
If there is more than one hole, we subtract from the original formula: the total number of
holes within half a wavelength.

Apertures are placed in electronic enclosures for many reasons. Apertures are required for
viewing, controls, meters, wire entry, etc. One reason is simply the seam around the
perimeter of the cover(s). To maintain the conductivity across the seam, we generally need
to use RF gasketing. RF gasketing is also used around display panels, shielded connectors,
and other apertures in the enclosure.

RF Gaskets
Although there are hundreds of gasket varieties based upon geometry and materials, there
are four principle categories of shielding gaskets: beryllium copper and other metal spring
fingers, knitted wire mesh, conductive particle filled elastomers and conductive fabric-over-
foam. Each of these materials has distinct advantages and disadvantages, depending upon
the application. Regardless of the gasket type, the important factors to be considered when
choosing a gasket are RF impedance (R + jX, where R = resistance, jX = inductive reactance),
shielding effectiveness, material compatibility corrosion control, compression forces,
compressibility, compression range, compression set, and environmental sealing. However,
many other factors may come into the selection decision.
Below is a comprehensive list of selection factors.

 Operating frequency
 Materials compatibility
 Corrosive considerations
 Mandatory compliance
 Operating environment
 Load/forces
 Cost
 Attenuation performance
 Fastening/mounting methods
 Storage environment
 Nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC)
 Cycle life
 Shielding/grounding/other
 Electrical requirements
 Materials thickness/alloy
 Space/weight considerations
 Product safety
 Recyclability

Metal RF Gaskets (Fingerstock) and Spring Contacts

Metal RF gaskets are made from various materials. They generally have the largest physical
compression range and high shielding effectiveness holding steady of a wide frequency
range. CuBe is the most conductive and has the best spring properties. They can be easily
plated for galvanic corrosion considerations.

Fingerstock and spring contact products are ideal for high cycling applications requiring
frequent access, with hundreds of standard shapes available as well as cut-to-length and
modified standards.

Wire Mesh and Knitted Gaskets

Wire mesh gaskets can be made from a variety of metal wires, including monel, tin plated-
copper clad-steel or aluminum. They are cost-effective for low cycling applications and offer
high shielding effectiveness over a broad frequency range. They are available in a wide
variety of sizes and shapes with the knit construction providing long lasting resiliency with
versatile mounting options.

Conductive cloth knit offers close-knit stitch of the metalized nylon, providing a highly
effective EMI shield, as well as a smooth, soft surface. Copper Beryllium (CuBe) Mesh offers
superb resiliency for consistent, point-to-point contact requiring the lowest compression

Elastomer Core Mesh combines excellent shielding performance with a high degree of

Oriented Wire
Oriented wire is a conductive elastomer in which individual conductive wires of either
Monel or aluminum are impregnated into solid or sponge silicone. Oriented wire provides
EMI protection and seals against moisture or rain on cast or machined surfaces.

Fabric-over-Foam (FoF)
FoF EMI gaskets offer high conductivity and shielding attenuation and are ideal for
applications requiring low compression force. Typical FoF EMI gasket applications include
shielding or grounding of automotive electronic equipment seams and apertures. There are
a wide range of shapes and thickness to meet any design need.

Electrically Conductive Elastomers

Conductive elastomers are ideal for applications requiring both environmental sealing and
EMI shielding. They provide shielding effectiveness up to 120dB at 10GHz with a wide choice
of profiles to fit a large range of applications. Conductive fillers include, but are not limited

 Carbon (C)
 Passivated aluminum (IA)
 Silver-plated aluminum (Ag/Al)
 Silver-plated copper (Ag/Cu)
 Silver-plated glass (Ag/G)
 Silver-plated nickel (Ag/Ni)
 Nickel-coated carbon (Ni/C)
 Silver (Ag)
 Elastomer options include:
 Silicone rubber
 Fluorosilicone rubber
 Ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM)
 Fluorocarbon rubber, Viton, or Fluorel

Form-in-Place (FiP)
Form-in-Place (FiP) EMI gaskets can be dispensed onto any conductive painted, plated, or
metallic surface of an electronics enclosure that requires environmental sealing, has
complex or rounded surfaces, or has miniature devices requiring a precision gasket; thus,
protecting the enclosure against internally and externally radiated interference and
environmental elements.
Board-Level Shielding (BLS)
If done well, PCB level shielding can be the most cost-efficient means of resolving EMI
issues. As a low cost, and most common shielding method, a variety of board-level metal
can-type shields have been used to eliminate EMI radiation from entering or exiting sections
of a PCB. This method has primarily employed solder-attached perforated metal cans being
attach and soldered to the ground trace on a PCB directly over the electrical components
that need to be shielded.

The can-type-shields are often installed in a fully automated fashion via a surface mount
technology process at the same time the components themselves are installed onto the PCB
using wave soldering, or solder paste and a reflow process. Such cans offer very high levels
of shielding effectiveness, are typically very reliable, and are widely used in the industry.
Board-level shielding metal cans can consist of tin or zinc plated steel, stainless steel, tin-
plated aluminum, brass, copper beryllium, nickel silver or other copper alloys.

Combination Shielding Products

Combination shields offer two or more technologies combined into one convenient form.
These shields are made by molding conductive elastomer walls onto metal shield cans to
provide any compartment geometry needed. In addition, even more complex applications
involve welding spring contact/fingerstock to shield cans to seal compartments in ultra-low
profile applications.

Basic shielding theory is really not so basic. A comprehensive knowledge of EMI control,
circuit design, mandatory specifications, environmental issues and other factors must be
considered. Shielding requires a conductive enclosure around a circuit, device, apparatus, or
even entire buildings to control EMI. The most cost effective shielding is applied at the
source of the problem. However, that is not always possible.

Once the design is established and there are EMI issues, many times, shielding is the only
solution. Today there are a myriad of choices for shielding materials from BLS to metal
and/or “conductive plastic” enclosures. In most cases, when shielded enclosures are
required, RF gasketing is also necessary to provide a conductive interface across the
enclosure’s apertures.

Simply trying to pick off-the-shelf shielding materials is not an option. There are many
factors involved in the selection of RF shielding materials and RF gaskets. In fact, if one is not
intimately familiar with the materials and mechanics of shielding, then it is best left to the
experts in the shielding industry.